If one is seeking to learn about rhythm through a film, Vaikhari by Lubdhak Chatterjee brings justice to that search. The 59-minute documentary paves its journey exploring and expressing the art of Padhant, a bol, which deals with the recitation of mnemonic and rhythmic syllables in Hindustani classical forms of music and of dance like Kathak. “The protagonist of the film is sound- bol Padhant. An intricate network of sonorous elements have been used to initiate an experience of the musical (rhythmic) form”, says Chatterjee. To define the spatiotemporal structures in performance, along with bodily movements and beats of percussive instruments, dancers and musicians recite the Padhant bol.

With the life-like participation of the camera, the film puts sound within a spatial perspective. It follows the trails of preparation of Kalidasa’s lyric poem Meghdootam (4th-5th century CE) by Kathak exponent, Parwati Dutta at the Mahagami Gurukul, Aurangabad. Reciting lines from the poem, Dutta derives specific movements by translating the text into hand gestures and mudras (symbols), used in Kathak. The course of making music on the Tabla, Pakhawaj and Sarangi build up to one of the most interesting sequences in the film. Dutta, along with her team of musicians, processes each word from her recitation of Meghdootam and explores rhythm on individual instruments. The rhythmic translation by each musician lies synchronous to the literal meaning of the part recited by Dutta. There is a certain sense of spatial echoing of time as the shots from inside the Gurukul break into the surrounding landscape, creating poetry between time, rhythm and space. In the film, one finds her preparing choreographies with her team of dancers in one of the caves- a probable nat-mandap of Ellora. Drawing from the ancient and most-celebrated Indian text on performance, the Natyashashtra, the sequence at Ellora reflects on the aesthetic principles of classical performances. Shot in the interiors of the cave, Dutta explains the principles of Purvaranga, the procedure and rituals one has to follow before a performance. This sudden divergence of space, from the practice halls of the Gurukul to the ancient caves, allowed Chatterjee to give perspective to the Natyashashtra. The shots of the ancient sculptures depicting Tribhanga and other dance postures, along with a silhouette like shot of Dutta performing, evokes an ethos of an erstwhile era.The creation of rhythm based on the text of Meghdootam is complemented by shots of the Gurukul’s nooks, walls, practice halls, and of the incoming monsoon: clouds, rain, fauna and moist earth. The tripartite conversation between images, rhythm and poetry, evoke a certain sense of timelessness throughout the linear structure of the film. Chatterjee mentions that his documentary follows the same narrative structure as Meghdootam. The Sanskrit classic, translated in 1813 to English by Horace Hayman Wilson and titled ‘The Cloud Messenger’, depicts a northward journey to the Himalayas from Central India, as described by a Yaksha (nature-spirit) to a passing cloud. The exiled subject of King Kuber (God of Wealth), wants the cloud to carry within itself a message for his wife, waiting on Mount Kailasa. The 111 stanzas’ lyric poetry introduces its theme in the very beginning, keeping a simple linear narrative; the two parts of the literary work are Purvamegha (Previous cloud) and Uttaramegha (Consequent cloud). The film follows this literal division of the poem, the two segments, and establishes its protagonist and subject- sound in the very beginning of the film. The rest that follows, delves into the process of creating the rhythm of bol Padhant.

While the film is informative and explains various terms dealing with the art of rhythmic utterances, the form of the film is analogical to the traditional tropes of documentary film making, where it omits voice-overs, interviews and the use of archival material. A performance when documented, fails in containing its integral component, the ‘living experience’. Vaikhari, which in Sanskrit means articulation, conveys a ‘lived experience’ of the process of creating bol Padhant, through the film’s aesthetic collaboration between myth, rhythm, history, and speech. Unfolding an incoming monsoon, synchronous to the linear narrative of Meghdootam, the ephemeral subject of the film- sound, overcomes its complex ahistorical or timeless form and manifests itself as a physical entity in the film’s timeline.

Lubdhak Chatterjee has a degree in engineering from Delhi, but his heart belongs to the arts. A connoisseur of Indian classical dance and music, Chatterjee carried out year-round intensive research on rhythms, bols and recitations in Hindustani classical dance and music, especially the practices at the Gurukul, and made his first documentary Vaikhari, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. A self-taught and motivated filmmaker, he debuted with the film In a Free State, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. Lubdhak draws from veteran filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s works for this documentary. “I would like to thank legendary filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan for his framing-while-shooting performances in his films like Kalamandalam Gopi, and Dance of the Enchantress in regards to audience appreciation”, says Chatterjee.

Cover Image: Guru Parwati Dutta at the Ellora caves.  
Images: Lubdhak Chatterjee and PSBT.